On teaching and the mental load, part 2 (some notes toward solutions)

Last week I wrote about teaching in relation to the gendered mental load – the experience, all too common among women, of both doing the work and managing the work, at home but also in the classroom. Of carrying more than their fair share of the burden, often invisibly, because of the subtle cognitive and emotional responsibilities that accrue to both domestic and pedagogical labour – and which for a variety of reasons are still assumed, even if largely unconsciously, by most people in our culture to be “women’s work.”

After reading that post, I bet a few of you were thinking: gosh, yes. I see some of that in my experience. But, Kim: what’s the solution?

If I had the solution, of course, I would be rich and famous – and probably hiding out on a remote island trying to stave off the angry, anti-feminist internet trolls.

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So no, answers have I none. I do, however, have some ideas about how we might do better at redistributing the mental load. And these come from my own recent experiences – on holiday, believe it or not.

From 1-11 July I was hiking and cycling in the Calder valley in West Yorkshire. (Calder is the ancestral home of the Brontë sisters, btw; these amazing women were POSTER CHICKS for the mental load, thanks to their arsehole, alcoholic brother Branwell. And Branwell, dammit! You would not be enjoying all this weird posterior fame if it were not for your shockingly talented and enterprising sisters. Jackass.)

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Anne, Emile, and Charlotte (right) vs Branwell (left) – as per the BBC, in the 2016 biopic To Walk InvisibleGreat fun – check it out.

Anyway, back to my holiday. I had put my out-of-office message on my work email and disabled it on my phone (which was along with me for navigation purposes); on my computer, I funnelled work emails into a holiday inbox (my computer was along with me because I’d planned to do some free writing toward a new book, between hikes and rides). I decided to check my personal email once a day, largely to get rid of spam and finalize some plans with friends post-holiday.

Things did not start smoothly. I was full of anxiety those first few days away. It was the come-down after two long weeks of teaching Western’s study-abroad class in London, England, during which time I’d been responsible for 12 Canadian students pretty much 24/7. Some of those students presented challenges for me – let’s just say they were struggling with their own mental loads, and as the prof-in-residence their loads were necessarily mine, too.

As I’d been teaching all day, every day in London I’d been managing other stuff, too – research projects in the air, a journal issue about to be released, two graduate students nearing completion. I’d worked through the day on my final Friday before vacation to tidy up as many loose ends as possible, but as I tried to settle into holiday rhythm I felt convinced I couldn’t just leave it all to be on vacation for 10 days. Too many people were counting on me!

Of course I’d done everything I could to clear my inbox; still, I felt nervous and uneasy.

On my fourth day away, overcome by this unease and against my self-imposed rule, I checked my work email’s holiday inbox. I reasoned with myself that I could delete the spam and would feel better for it not overflowing. (Spam is evil. EVIL EVIL EVIL.)

You can guess what happened next. I found an urgent email from a colleague, writing on behalf of one of my graduate students; that student had not received the work I’d sent back to them before my break, owing to an email glitch. The tone of my colleague’s message was polite, but it read to me like they assumed I’d dropped the ball on my student and left a mess for someone else to clean up.

So what did I do? Did I sigh, roll my eyes, and then say to myself: “damn! How annoying! Let’s shoot the work back again, with a copy to the colleague, and remind everyone of my holiday dates. Then let’s forget about it until the holiday ends”?

Nope. Of course not.

What I did was, I lost my shit.

First, I panicked. Then I emailed my colleague with details (let’s say excessive details) of all the work I’d been doing to support the student in question, while also teaching my study abroad course. I then re-sent all the work to the student, with copies to my colleague and another member of our admin team. I sent separate notes to the admin team member involved. I made a full evening’s work for myself, while on holiday, and produced in the backwash almost 48 hours’ worth of fretting to follow.

What happened in the end? My student replied with thanks, apologized for the email mishap, and my colleague replied supportively, too. Sensing my mood, on about my sixth or seventh email, they also reminded me to forget about all of this not-actually-big-deal, not-really-world-ending stuff and just enjoy my holiday.

Since this minor but telling email meltdown, I’ve been thinking a lot about it.

What does it say about my mental load at work?

What does it say about my own expectations of myself in relation to that load?

What does it say about the systemic issues that shape both that load and my relationship with it?

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Things about which to lose one’s shit: maybe this. Maybe not email. (An image of an actual cobbled climb in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Really.)

Lesson number one for me was this: I made extra work for myself where I did not need to. I overreacted to a simple situation and created both stress and labour where none was required. I made extra work for myself by checking my email on holiday. I did not need to do that! I SHOULD NOT have done that! The world would not have ended had I not looked at my colleague’s email until my break was over. Armageddon was not even in sight.

So that’s it, right? I created my own mental load problem. The solution? Just say no! Simples, ja?

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Not so fast. Lesson number two: I did what I did because I live inside a work structure that creates an onerous mental load for me on a regular basis, to which I’ve become slowly and unknowingly accustomed.

I understand my responsibility, as a teacher, to be to tend that load at all times. And more: I have learned to peg my self worth to my tending of that load at all times.

After two weeks of supporting 12 young women in a huge, foreign city, my pastoral care radar was at its max. I was utterly drained.

Maybe I checked my email because my body thought that experience wasn’t yet over. Maybe I checked my email because I’d created some destructive muscle memory that needed satisfying.

Most likely I checked my email because, unconsciously, I believe that’s what “good teachers” do: they make themselves available to their students 24/7. They never let their students down. They bend over backwards. They sacrifice their breaks. They martyr themselves.

To say this is destructive, wrong-headed, and awful is both true and not helpful. Remember what I argued in my last post, when I cited research into student responses on course evaluations: as a rule, women need to work harder to be perceived as caring and supportive teachers at university level. Whether that scenario holds true in every classroom or not doesn’t really matter: women are by and large socialized to over-care. And we do it at our own expense, more often than not. (We are socialized to do that, too.)

How do we begin to fix this?

Let’s start with what we – women in situations similar to the ones I’ve been describing – can do to help ourselves unload some of that mental load. In my own case, step #1 would have been for me to leave my computer behind on my holiday. (Free writing? Who cares! Just take the holiday. THEN write.)

Step #2 would have been for me to delete my work email completely from my phone.

Step #3, upon finally receiving my colleague’s email, would have been to take a deep breath and go for a walk. Then after some reflection to reply as I suggested above: briefly, calmly, unapologetically, and with the missing work attached.

(I might also, at the same time, have noted to my colleague – a kind and sympathetic human who would have heard the message! – some ways that the tone of their email might have been adjusted to help me feel less burdened by the situation.)

How could I have gotten to a mental place where steps 1-3 might have been conceivable for me? That would have involved me, in the first instance, asking for more support during my study abroad labour: being extremely clear to the colleagues around me what I needed, and asking for those things, frankly and kindly and, again, without apology.

But of course, there’s a catch. Academics in general, and women (among other non-white-male) academics in particular, rely for their status and security upon appearing to be shit-together-don’t-need-no-help types; asking for help reveals weakness, which places us, potentially, at risk.

Now, some of you (just like me, as I just wrote that sentence) are likely thinking: but there’s lots of help available at my school. And my male (among other) colleagues are super kind and supportive.

Yup, sure, true. But guess what else? Our mental loads are learnedingrained; they are systemic and they are tenacious, regardless of the objective realities of our work situations, and regardless of the kindness of our male (among other) colleagues. (They sneak in. They aren’t so immediately easy to see as a colleague’s gesture of kindness.)

Which means that it’s not just down to us to get a grip and take a holiday and ask for help.

It’s actually down to our colleagues, our line managers, our chairs and deans and others in positions of power at our institutions to help change the culture of the mental load.

The key thing to remember about the mental load is that it is often invisible. We have to work, sometimes very hard, to bring it into focus.

So: those of us who carry a lot of load need to look straight at it, and question whether or not we should be carrying it. We need to ask ourselves why we are carrying it: who benefits from that carriage? At whose expense does it happen? Then, we need to take some action based on our responses.

This might be as small an action as speaking out about it, candidly, to loved ones and colleagues who can help. It might even involve speaking openly with our students about the mental load. (I’m a big advocate for that: students, once invited to see teachers as human beings, often do so, and do so with real empathy.)

Just as crucially, those who do not carry as much load need to look with nuance at the others around them, and question how much mental load those others are carrying – and on whose behalf. For some of us, in fact the first job might be to look at the load itself, maybe to see it for the first time. To consider carefully the labour behind the stuff that just magically, somehow, gets done. And to ask who the hell is doing it, if we are not.

And again, the imperative to take action pertains: to ask questions, to imagine alternatives. Maybe just to make fewer assumptions.

Finally, at the level of structure – department level, faculty level – we need to do this work, and officially. How about a wellness task force (gender-balanced) to look at mental load specifically, to parse carefully the inequities in certain kinds of labour in our immediate environments, and to recommend action toward redress?

Or, even simpler – and with fewer risks of offloading the work of thinking about mental load onto those already burdened with mental load – how about some informal but curated discussions about how our local loads are distributed? (For this purpose, I’m a huge fan of Lois Weaver’s Long Table format. It is amazing because nobody leads; everyone must invest and hold a stake. Try it.)

When I started my academic job I got two excellent but flawed pieces of advice. The first was: keep your head down and publish, publish, publish. The second was: do not make yourself invaluable, or you will be placed on every committee ever.

The first problem with this advice is not that it’s bad; it’s that it is systemically naive. It assumes I can live with appearing both selfish and not quite good enough. For a woman like me in the academy, both of those prospects are social, and emotional, poison. Unbearable.

The second problem with this advice is that it expects me to adjust myself to a flawed system; it does not expect the system to open its eyes to me.

But here’s the thing: it’s not that hard to see what others are doing, going through – and what each of us is not actually doing about it. You just have to look a bit harder, more carefully, at greater depth. As academics, isn’t that what we are trained to do?

To end, and in the spirit of lightening the mental load, some snaps from Yorkshire – after I finally threw the email out the window. Enjoy and feel free.

Kim

 

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On teaching and the mental load, part one

A few days ago a good friend and colleague sent our group of female peers a link to a terrific cartoon about gendered labour in the household, and what the anonymous French author, known as Emma, calls “the mental load”.

(The cartoon, I’ve since learned, went viral shortly after it was published in English, so you may already have seen it; if not, click here.)

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The piece is feminist but it is not pedantic: it sensibly, carefully, rationally, and fairly discusses the nature of the intellectual labour demanded of women who find themselves in heterosexual relationships that seem, on the surface, quite equitable, but at bottom aren’t.

Emma demonstrates multiple instances in which women in apparently fair-trade partnerships assume the “mental load” of household management, doing a significant amount of bolt-on labour because the roster of chores – from paperwork to baby care to laundry management – belongs to them. As household “project managers”, these women do the management work AND a fair bit of the grunt work; the former, however, is often invisible. Result? Tired, irate female household members, and male household members who don’t understand why they don’t get enough credit for doing their share of household work.

I posted the cartoon on Facebook, and it got a mixed response. Plenty of my friends copped to not having any idea of such problems; certainly it wasn’t in their personal experience. Here, I pointed out, it’s worth remembering we are a pretty lucky lot: we are, most of us, academic feminists for a living. Stands to reason that lots of us have married feminist partners, male and female and non-binary.

But the “nope, not me” response was not the lot of it; several others – and to my surprise, a number of younger others – shared the link in turn and described having these very issues at home. Again, these are smart, educated, feminist women, with partners who share their values.

Which means that, even among the most sensibly feminist among us, we’ve still got a significant gendered-division-of-labour problem. And for many of us, it walks invisible.

Where does this persistent division come from? Emma’s cartoon makes this very nicely clear, especially toward the end (it’s worth reading the whole thing, btw). It’s not about individual men or women, or our desires or our choices, or our individual douchebaggery. It’s about the ways we have internalized, naturalized, and effectively dismissed our own experiences of patriarchal conditioning.

You know: the kind that says that good women get shit done around the house, while good men do exceptional stuff that supports their family’s wellbeing, but that also has the helpful effect of serving them power and status.

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I’m going to pause here for a second to remind us all that patriarchy does NOT equal men, and that women are NOT just patriarchy’s victims. Patriarchy is a system of social relations that organizes gendered individuals into groups, places divisive expectations on those groups, and then perpetuates those divisions as somehow natural, as connected to sexual embodiment rather than social nurture.

Patriarchy affects both men and women negatively, as well as sometimes positively. It affects women negatively more often than men, because women are the secondary group in the patriarchal binary. That said, women often make the best patriarchs: the system needs effective, successfully conforming women to keep other women in line.

OK: so now you’re thinking,

Kim! WTF does this have to do with teaching?

You don’t have to look far to discover that women’s uneven workload in the home has knock-on impacts for those who are both partners and/or parents, as well as researchers. Best practices in the recruitment, retention, and promotion of women in the academy now frequently acknowledge how key university-based support for women’s “mental load” is for promoting their academic success. (Though of course, it’s not usually called that, plainly and outright. It’s usually called “childcare support” or “flex time” or similar – something attached to a chore, not an ethos.)

Women who have too much work to do at home – especially in the key years after giving birth to children – simply cannot also give 60+ hours per week to teaching, research, and administration (with an emphasis on research, of course) in an effort to earn promotion, tenure, and then – the kicker – further promotion to full professor. The latter, in particular, is something in which women tend to lag significantly, even as women’s numbers in the graduate student and junior faculty cohort continue to climb.

(Excellent research into the gender imbalance in the senior professoriate and senior administrative ranks, across a range of disciplines, was conducted by an expert panel convened by the Council of Canadian Academies and made public in a report published in 2012. The panel was convened after the initial round of 19 appointments to the prestigious Canada Research Chairs program included, tellingly, not one woman. It’s worth a read; click here. For [slightly] older research, in the American context and published by the National Education Association, click here.)

So: women who do a lot of mental-load work at home don’t get promoted as fast, or at all, at work. They are TOO. BURNED. OUT.

So far so simple to understand.

But: I don’t do a lot of mental-load work at home; I live alone and am my own household boss. Even when I had a partner, we typically lived apart and did our own things. That’s surely part of why I’ve been as professionally successful as I have been: minimal mental load.

Still, Emma’s cartoon resonated with me fiercely. I wanted to know why. So I did some soul-searching.

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(Why is this woman smiling? Keep reading to find out.)

The cartoon, as it happens, landed in my inbox while I was away on holiday, trying – and failing – to get away from work. As I reflected on it in that specific context, what surprised me was realizing that I do bear a disproportionate mental load – not at home, but in my academic job.

The perception of men working in the academy remains different from the perception of women working in the academy, even now; men are more or less automatically perceived as “professorial”, while women are associated less directly with the solitary-genius-in-robes model that term has historically implied.

I want to be clear that I’m not saying here that women profs aren’t recognized as profs in their jobs; I’m saying that the term resonates differently when it’s attached to women, as when it’s attached to men.

Let’s call it the Professor Dumbledore vs Headmistress McGonagall effect:

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(Albus vs Minerva. “Professor” vs “Headmistress”. Spot the differences.)

Some evidence for this difference in perception comes from growing bodies of research into how women are perceived on course evaluations relative to their male peers (click here for a brief NPR article from 2016 summarizing recent research). Both male and female students tend to attach adjectives like “wise”, “passionate”, and “tough but fair” more often to men than to women. The evidence suggests that male profs don’t need to do anything differently from female profs in order to garner this response; in fact, assessment statistics show that even when women are objectively revealed to be more effective teachers, men often score more highly on that measure on course evaluations.

It’s not just students who feel this way, either. As the Council of Canadian Academies’ report reveals, “socialization, schemas, and stereotypes define social roles and expectations, and contribute to the lack of encouragement for girls to forge non-traditional paths. As a result, female students consistently report lower levels of self-confidence,” especially in the STEM disciplines (xvii). Women who go into research careers are making a mental leap – even today – away from gender convention. That’s a risk, and it requires compensations of all kinds.

Helpfully, however, convention lives in the creases, particularly in the “teaching” and “administration” aspects of the academic job. Teaching is traditionally a “pink collar” or “helping” profession, and it’s where a lot of academic women get stuck, especially when they are not considered, or do not consider themselves, to be “full professor” material. As Mary Ann Mason notes in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Women are most well represented at community colleges (both those with and without academic ranks) and least well represented at doctoral-level institutions. Women make up 50 percent of the faculty at community colleges, 41 percent at baccalaureate and master’s degree colleges, and 33 percent at doctoral-level universities. Most women are not obtaining jobs at the more prestigious and higher-paying research universities where they earned their degrees.

And women are greatly overrepresented below the tenure track in the low-paying, nontenured positions. Women make up 58 percent of instructors and 54 percent of lecturers, and hold 51 percent of unranked positions.

(My emphasis)

In the lower and middle ranks – where the research reveals many women are trapped – everyone teaches a full course load or more. The labour to teach even reasonably well is onerous, and a lot of it is not in-the-classroom work. It’s “mental load” labour: prep; marking; office hours; fielding emails; holding hands.

What’s more, teaching’s “mental load” for women also means always appearing as caring as humanly possible, in an effort to earn a “caring” student eval score at least as high as the senior male prof down the hall who doesn’t have to do half this kind of mental somersaulting in order to achieve the same results.

I know a heck of a lot of men who are adored, even idolized, by students of all backgrounds and genders. They are perfectly good teachers and decent colleagues, most of the time. But I know few female colleagues – generous to a fault, supportive of each other, damn committed teachers – who make the same kind of “professorial” impact.

By god, though, do the students ever line up at those women’s doors! Why? For global kinds of help and advice, reading of work in progress, career support. In loco parentus stuff. Time-consuming and energy-depleting stuff.

You know: women’s work.

I’ve had three separate cases of sexual assault reported to me in my office hours. I’ve had countless students in tears, usually because of struggles with mental health issues – not because of grades. I used to keep Kleenex on hand just in case.

And then there’s administration – and not the sexy, well-paid kind. Wow, do women ever over-invest in the admin labour our jobs demand! Could it be that we are very used – socialized, we might say – to bearing the administrative burden for others? Of course I’ve got a number of talented male colleagues who do exceptional administrative work, particularly at the “officer” level in my department, for which I’m hugely grateful; still, I can’t help but notice that the VAST majority of non-academic staff in my faculty are women. I’ve also lost track of the number of times I’ve been in an administrative role, where my job was to try to coax male committee members to do the job of committee member… and I ended up doing it myself, because, you know. Easier.

Look, I know, ok? Rampant sexism in the academy is not news, and, thankfully, we’re increasingly aware of it.

But making real change to women’s working conditions in the academy means taking seriously not only how often the conditions of academic labour neglect entirely women’s experiences of the “mental load” at home, but also how often those conditions actually reproduce the domestic conditions of “mental load” and call it academic labour. Not the kind that will get you accolades, prizes, and promotion, mind – not yet, anyway.

***

On that note, I’m truly proud to report that on 1 July 2017 I was promoted to the rank of Full Professor at Western University, one of Canada’s leading doctoral-research schools. I’m unusual in this promotion: a comparatively young woman (I’m 42) who has achieved a top research rank just 12 years after my first academic appointment.

I did not apply for promotion based on a “second monograph”, the so-called “gold standard” for top-tier success in my field – I don’t have one, and, increasingly, I think I might never write one. Instead, I applied based on my record of collaborative labour: my editing work, which has been substantial and much-lauded, and my teaching work, which shone through in my file thanks to a dozen letters from former students, and a damn fat teaching dossier to boot.

Why am I telling you this? (Also: if I was a guy, would you ask? Just checking.)

I wanted my promotion case to argue that this kind of work – shared, supportive, and student-forward work by a woman – needs to be more than enough for significant promotion at research schools circa 2017, if we are serious about taking action toward gender parity in the academy. I wanted it to set a precedent; I hope it does. I’ll certainly be supporting, wholeheartedly, future women scholars coming up for promotion with similar files. (I’d like to invite anyone reading, who works in my field, to name me on their promotion files as a potential external examiner, btw.)

I know this post has been long – thanks for reading! In my next post I’ll share the anecdote that prompted the reflections above, as well as some ways we – men and women both – might combat the academy’s gendered mental load in our day to day actions this coming year.

Stay cool meanwhile,

Kim

On the art of saying no, redux

Remember back last year – in July! Blessed July! – when I wrote about learning to say no more often?

Well, yesterday morning my good friend M sent along a piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education written by our colleague Robin Bernstein, a professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard (and a terrific performance scholar, btw). Robin’s article made me wish I’d written it, instead of the thing I wrote. Her “The Art of ‘No'” is more or less the ideal distillation of everything I wanted to say in that post, and much more besides.

So, of course, I emailed her right away and asked if I could link to her work here on the blog. And she kindly and enthusiastically said: yes!

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“The Art of ‘No'” a rich and funny piece, full of smart, clear advice. It’s also – I think – all the better for its brash, uncompromising tone:

Don’t explain. Maybe you have a good reason for saying no. Maybe you don’t. Either way, if you try to justify your answer, you open yourself to judgment and bargaining, or you risk oversharing. You don’t have to defend your decision.

  • Don’t say: “I wish I could attend this event, but I need to drive my aunt to the doctor on that day.” The event could shift to a different day — and now you’re on record stating that you want to attend. Or the asker could judge your personal life, or question your commitment to the profession.
  • Instead, say: “Thank you for this invitation. Unfortunately, I’m unavailable to participate. I appreciate your thinking of me.”
  • Or: “I received your invitation to participate in [event]. I have a previous commitment at that time, but I wish you the very best for a successful event.” No one needs to know that you previously committed to going home, watching Project Runway, and eating Funyuns.

At the same time, though, the article is generous in key ways:

Be strategic in naming your replacement(s). If the proposed gig is desirable, suggest someone who could use a career boost. Pay special attention to issues of gender, race, and position: Consider passing a good opportunity on to a person of color, a person without a tenure-track job, or someone else who faces documented disadvantages in academe. If the proposed labor is undesirable, nominate someone competent but underutilized. Be sure only to suggest someone you respect and trust to complete the task reasonably well.

So go forth and read this piece. You’ll be glad you did. Quite apart from the sage advice, it’s a beautifully performative piece of writing in which Robin, as a woman with cultural privilege in our public sphere, models the act of standing up for herself, unapologetically and unabashedly, while also supporting the needs of others.

Thanks Robin!
Kim

No-frog

Lots of memes with white girls saying no. So I decided to go with the frog.

 

On learning to say no, and to feel good about it too!

There’s an analogy I used when my mom first got sick, early in 2014, to help my dad realise that taking care of her was, of course, a good thing, but that he also had to take care of himself. In fact, he had to take care of himself first, so that he could also take care of her properly. It comes from that thing every air traveler loves to ignore with gusto: the safety briefing. It’s the bit that says: secure your mask before assisting others.

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I’m very big on self care – in theory. I am very well aware that I’m of no use to my students when I’m sick or over-tired, or worn down emotionally (although do I cancel class? Nope). I also know that if I want to ride my bike faster (which I always do) I need to rest properly. (I write about cycling for Fit is a Feminist Issue if you want to learn more). So I would like to think that, in the event I was in a plane-travel emergency, I would absolutely, totally follow instructions and secure my mask first, before looking around to see whom I could help.

I’d like to think so, but I doubt it.

I’m a perennial yes-sayer. Ask me to do shit; chances are I’ll say sure, of course! Usually with enthusiasm; somehow I convince myself in the moment that it’ll be fun/good for me, so of course, bring it on! Sometimes with covert frustration, but firm in the belief that saying no would bring very unwelcome consequences indeed. What these are remain abstract, but I’m sure they are lurking in the underbrush, ready to bite me in the shins.

Where does this urge come from? Part of it has to do with cultural socialisation: women are socialised to say yes – or rather, we are socialised not to say no, except under extreme circumstances. (And, incidentally: the fact that women are socialised to say yes most of the time is part of what makes debates about sexual consent so tricky, the obviousness of “no means no” so hard to make stick.) Historically, women are the helpmeets, the obedient ones, the ones who clean up the shit with a smile so that everyone else in the household still feels good about themselves afterward. Ever notice how women who take care of themselves well by firmly insisting on their rights – to their own time; to their own bodies; to their human rights – are often labeled sluts or bitches or worse? Or trolled mercilessly online? These are the women who have learned against the odds to say NO, to set their own boundaries independent of patriarchal expectations.

But a big part of this urge to say yes, for me, is also down to the social lessons the academy teaches us, from grad school onward: that we always need one more publication, so if someone asks you to write a chapter for their obscure forthcoming collection of course you say yes; that we always need to earn the next round of glowing course evaluations or else be branded a bad teacher, so of course you make yourself available to your students 24/7; that we need to be seen to be team players, so of course you do that committee gig on overload. The academy breeds imposter syndrome; all the measures in place to judge our impact are designed to help us feel, consistently, not good enough. And that feeling creates the panicked urge just always, always to say yes, even when the yes drips with years of accumulated resentment.

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I was warned at the start of my academic career to guard against being constantly asked to do stuff, and to learn to say no as often as yes in order to protect my time and my own best interests. (That is, to preserve enough time for me to do the 40% of my job that is research and publishing-driven. We’re not talking lolling on the couch eating bonbons, friends. I wish!)

I knew there was absolutely no chance I was going to become one of those people who doesn’t get asked; those people are demonstrably a) incompetent, or b) assholic when on committees. I am highly competent, more’s the pity, and I’m allergic to being mean to people (just one more way I have been well socialised as a woman in the workforce, let me say). But I figured, early on, that there was a fighting chance I could learn to say no and mean it.

Alas: somehow, along the way, I did not manage to acquire this crucial bit of academic survival kit – or perhaps I got hold of it, but never properly internalised it. Anyway, I didn’t recognise how seriously I’d misfired on this one until last year, when a handful of extremely large things (a book; the organization of a large conference; the launching of a new academic program) I’d said yes to over a period of about 18 months all came to a head at the very same time. Suddenly, I was living through the profoundly exhausting consequences of three separate yeses. And it occurred to me that no way could these consequences have been worse than what would have happened if I’d said no.

So, emerging from this self-imposed trauma, I decided I was going to teach myself how to say no and like it. Feel relieved and gratified by it. Feel not guilty about it!

To do this, I turned to a handful of my best loved and trusted colleagues, all women, and asked them these questions:

  • when was the last time you said no to something that really made a difference to your work-life balance and/or mental health? How did saying no “go”? (IE: how did you do it, and were there repercussions?)
  • when was the last time you WISH you’d said no to something? What would you do differently this time around, if you had it to do again? (Or: HOW would you handle it?)

I told them they could feel absolutely free to ignore the request; I did NOT want to add to anybody’s workload! I explained that I was crowd-sourcing ideas for this post, and that they should let me know if I could quote them, or paraphrase them, and whether or not I could identify them. (Most chose anonymity, but were happy to have me share their thoughts.)

I learned a lot of great stuff thanks to this exercise, and I’m eager to pass it on. Herewith, then, the distillation – plus a list of top tips you can pin up above your computer (I know I will).

***

One colleague at a similar stage in her career to mine noted that the biggest challenge, when it comes to saying no, is managing the temptation. Do I NEED to do this thing, or do I WANT to do it? And what exactly do I mean by these terms? Where do I place the distinction between them? She wrote:

As I think about it I realize that saying no feels pretty privileged. It is like the CV of failures. Privileged to say no because I don’t NEED to do that thing. But part of that I think is also calibrating what we mean by ‘need.’ My child-self mixes up ‘need’ and ‘want.’ Saying yes sometimes is a want rather than a need. Saying yes brings warm fuzzies of validation and achievement. … But beyond system imposed needs, I do think that the hardest thing is to self-calibrate those needs and wants. If I think about saying no as a privilege then saying no can feel pretty good too. I am fortunate that I get to say no.

These reflections on “no” as a privilege – one we need to be willing to grant ourselves, which is not often easy, but which remains a privilege nonetheless – coincide with the thoughts offered by one of my senior mentors, someone whose career advice I trust almost without fail. She noted that we always, always over-inflate the consequences of saying no, especially once we are at the very privileged stage, in North America, of having tenure:

In my experience, there aren’t repercussions for a ‘no’, beyond some generally short-lived grumpiness … saying no doesn’t ever mean you won’t be asked again … and again … in the months and years ahead.  Probably the most important thing to teach oneself is that it doesn’t have to be you – there’s always another person on the “ask” list.

Maybe that last statement is the critical one: there’s always someone else. We might not like to think we are dispensable, or replaceable – oh god, my imposter syndrome is calling! – but of course we are. Maybe embracing that reality could be, should be a good thing!

This leads to another key insight, offered by another senior mentor and friend. She struggles with health issues that impact her ability to work on a regular basis, but rather than making an issue of it she finds herself overcompensating by saying yes too often. For her, the struggle isn’t saying yes or saying no, but knowing her own body’s limits and respecting them, rather than trying to cover them up by repeatedly transgressing them:

The ‘how to’ isn’t hard: there are usually enough things on any academic’s plate that we can say ‘I can’t manage it at this time,’ or ‘I can’t manage it until x is done’ or ‘until we get a replacement for y who left’ or ‘there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.’

It may be that the question is ‘how much is enough.’ I mean that. And I recognise the absurdity in saying it when I write it, but I think it’s there.

“How much is enough for me?” “What do I mean when I say I need to do this thing?” Or, as a couple of respondents noted, will I enjoy this?

This last question is actually not superficial, but crucial. It’s directly connected to this one: will this thing, a lot of work or not, nourish me in a way that will allow me to do it well? That will allow me to learn from it and not resent it, and encourage others to do it well? As another peer noted very succinctly, I don’t do X because I hate it, and lots of people don’t hate it and would rather do it. I do Y because I love it and do it well; it’s a trade-off and one we should feel confident making. If everyone pulls their weight by doing (largely) the stuff they love, we will actually discover most of the bases will cover themselves.

To end, I’d like to share an extremely sensible list of things to consider before saying no, shared by my senior mentor with the iron-clad advice. This is a keeper, folks!

  1. Don’t say yes or no immediately.  Keep to a 24-hour rule.
  2. Ask yourself:  will I learn anything?  Is my voice necessary/useful?  Will it be fun (at least some of the time!)?  Could a colleague/graduate student benefit from this opportunity instead?
  3. Think about time: if I say yes, how will this fit in my schedule?  Do I need something in order to make it work (money, course release, grad assistant, stepping away from another committee or whatever)?*
  4. Good to remember: saying “no” might be a huge nuisance to the person asking, but it is never fatal.

(*She also notes: If you are being pressured for a “yes,” even when you’ve given a “no,” then ASK FOR SOMETHING that will help! If you don’t get something in return, then your contribution isn’t that important to the person asking, and you can say no secure in the knowledge that you made your willingness but also your needs clear.)

My thanks to everyone who replied to my request for thoughts on saying no, and especially to the beloved friend who wrote this, and made me laugh out loud:

Hi Kim,

Sorry for the slow response. This is a fascinating topic for your blog but I’m afraid I must decline writing at this point due, in large part, to the time needed to devote to the many other things I’ve failed to decline. Sigh. Happy to discuss strategies in person at some point, though.

I look forward to reading the blog.

And yes, we plan to chat it out – over drinks, natch! – sometime soon.

In solidarity,

Kim